Saturday 7 April 2012

KITCHEN STUFF part one by Adèle Geras.

I apologize in advance to anyone who's come to this blog for something scholarly and significant. Today is domestic science day on the blog, if you like, and it's only historical because it happened when I was a child....that's a long time ago!

The picture shows the kitchen scales I bought the other day with a John Lewis token I was given as a birthday present. I have just turned 68. When I told a friend of mine how happy I was with them, she said: "How on earth have you managed without a scale for all these years?" It's a good question. It's not that I don't make things that need a scale. I like good food and since becoming addicted to the Great British Bake Off, I am an enthusiastic baker of cakes. How come, then, I've never had a scale before? Have all my cakes been dreadful? Not at all, though I say so myself. They've been perfectly fine. How did I manage such a feat? With this, the excellent TALA measure which I'm sure will make lots of you sigh with nostalgia.

The TALA measure is a wondrous thing. It measures almost every dry ingredient that you can think of, though it's a bit short on the exotics and you have to figure out what Bulghur wheat is most like before you try measuring out something like that.

I have had the Tala for all the time I've been married, which is nearly 45 years. Its companion, the Pyrex jug, for measuring liquids, is not quite as old. I think it's the second jug I've had since 1967. I know I can measure liquid on my electronic scale too but I'll probably go for the Pyrex on most occasions.

Thinking about utensils led me to remember the things my grandmothers cooked with and that's what makes this post vaguely historical. It's family history, at least. My maternal grandmother, Pessia, lived in a flat in Jerusalem. Anyone who's read a book by me called MY GRANDMOTHER'S STORIES (long out of print) will know a lot about this flat and the things my grandmother got up to. Every story begins with an autobiographical passage where I describe some of the things we did together. For instance, I used to help her mince meat.

"I liked using a carrot to poke whatever we were mincing deep into the silver mouth of the machine clamped to the side of the table."

I'm sure older readers will remember these machines:

Every Friday, almost the whole day was given over to preparing food for the Sabbath. Cooking of any kind was not allowed between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday. Once three stars had appeared in the sky, that was that, as far as electricity was concerned. Before the advent of timers and thermostats, my granny used an old petrol can. This was made of tin, very thin and silvery. It looked something like this but without the logo. Hers was silver all over.

This tin sat, from Friday evening till Saturday evening, on top of a primus stove, turned down very low.

And in it would go, wrapped in kitchen towels, enough food to last the whole twenty four hours and somehow feed everyone who came by to visit on the Sabbath. There was always a kugel: a savoury cake made from noodles and vermicelli which was brown and had sugar in it somewhere because it always had an edge of sweetness. This was cooked in a cake tin (23 cms, or so) and sliced warm the next day. It was served with very salty pickled cucumbers which my grandmother made herself. There were always jars and jars of pickles on the back verandah of the flat and I've never had such good ones since those days. Back to the tin. As well as the kugel, there was the cholent: a rich meaty stew with beans and potatoes which was just out of this world. The meat had cooked slowly all night long and by Saturday, it was so tender and flaky and delicious that you didn't notice that the beef had stood encased in salt to rid it of its blood for hours before it was cooked. I have never mastered the mysteries of the Kosher kitchen, but I do remember the slabs of beef standing about in salt. Tucked into the corners of the tin were hard boiled eggs still in their shells. By the time we got to them on Saturday morning,the whites were coffee coloured and the yolks looked like blue opals. Again, I've never had such good hard-boiled eggs. There was also more in various cupboards of the house for guests. My grandmother was a dab hand at strudel, which I've never made, because I remember it being very labour-intensive.

Pessia made all these things using a very primitive scale with iron weights of various kinds which I had to balance on one side while she oversaw the contents of the bowl on the other. Sometimes she didn't bother but just flung everything in together using only her past experience to guide her.

Still, however much I long to taste those foods of my childhood again, I'm glad I have the benefit of modern technology to help me. My mother passed on the kugel recipe once and I made it but it didn't taste the same. The main ingredient, my grandmother, was missing from the mix.

In my next post, I'll write about my father's mother, Messoda. She was Moroccan and her cooking was worth writing about, too. I also have a fantastic recipe of hers to pass this space.

WHAT I'VE BEEN READING is, unusually for me, a non-fiction book called EVENING IN THE PALACE OF REASON: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James Gaines.

If you think this sounds dry and dusty, think again. It is completely enthralling and brilliantly written and if some of it went over my head (all the musicology, for instance, of which I understood only a tiny amount) that's of no consequence. I found it unputdownable, a wonderful picture of an age and of men who represented two currents of thought during that time: faith and reason. The incidental gossipy details which abound are fascinating and the writer's enormous erudition and understanding of his subject is always delicately and engagingly presented. A must for anyone with an interest in the 18th century and the time leading up to the French Revolution.


Essie Fox said...

The mincer! That definitely made me feel very nostalgic.

beryl kingston said...

I not only remember that mincer I've got one of the originals in my kitchen now, in frequent and efficient use. It belonged to my grandmother, who gave it to me when I married in 1950.

catdownunder said...

My grandmothers had those mincers and they gave one to my mother. The Tala measure is still in use and I have Pyrex jug.
My grandmother also taught me to do something I doubt anyone else my age (at least here) can do - starch a detachable collar for a man's shirt around a pudding basin.
(Everything I know about housekeeping I managed to learn from my paternal grandmother - or teach myself.)

Pauline Chandler said...

I loved this post! These are such lovely memories.I have my own small collection of old cooking utensils,anything you use by hand. I had one of those mincers,used it for years, to make cottage pie on Mondays with the left over Sunday roast!

Linda B-A said...

What a wonderful idea for a post, Adele! Just looking at the Tala measure took me back to making fairy cakes with my Nana. And the mincer! Now I am yearning after Scottish meatloaf for supper...

Mary Hoffman said...

I have a Tala measure - howf does anyone cook without one? Also two pyrex jugs and an iron set of scales with weights both imperial and metric, in brass.

My mother was. Cook (her job, I mean) but she was very approxiMate about measuring and everything by eye or instinct. Needless to say, her food was very good.

She had one of those mincers and our first coffee grinder was a bit the same, with a drawer underneath to catch the ground coffee. Lovely post!

Penny Dolan said...

Adele, I think this ia a post I have always wanted you to write (and not for the Tala) as must anyone who knows your enthusiasm for good food. Or eaten your cooking. Happy celebrations, everyone!

adele said...

Thanks for lovely comments, everyone! Yes, my figure speaks of my love of food. I do my best to fight the greed, but it's hard.

Susan Price said...

I recognise the mincer too! My aunt had one screwed to her table in Blackheath in the Black Country. She was the aunt who used to eat chitlings and brains on toast. The lord knows what she minced.
I have a cooking pot that used to belong to my grandmother - oval, enamelled, and it has an indent in the lid which I'm told used to be filled with hot coals, to help the cooking.
More, Adele! - Fascinating.

Sally Prue said...

The scent of all this marvellous food seems to rise most mouth-wateringly from the screen.

I must say, though, that most of the food in our English house when I was a child in the 1960s was simply dreadful.

Theresa Breslin said...

What a gorgeous post Adele! and what memories it evokes. My mother used to make steak pie in an enormous enamel ashet for New Year with the most mouth watering pastry on top. I don't recall much weighing of ingredients - amounts were judged on a scale of a 'fling of flour' to a 'hantle' but, unlike my efforts, it always turned out fine.

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

The old mincer? We've still got one! When there's leftover meat the old mincer gets clamped to the table and gives us plenty of arm exercise! :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

How wonderful! Am amazed by the tin contraption for keeping the food warm during Sabbath. Such ingenuity!

Leslie Wilson said...

I loved the food-warming contraption, too, and a lesson to us in these days of prodigal energy consumption. The stew sounds marvellous! Your tala measure reminded me of baking with a similar thing my grandfather sent from Germany; it was metric, so I had to learn to do conversions when I was maybe seven or eight.But I was taught metric 'pfunds' which are bigger. Didn't do my cakes any harm. I have attempted strudel pastry, but never really succeeded, it always breaks before it gets thin enough to read the paper through it, which was what my grandmother used to do - that is, make it thin, rather than make a practice of reading the paper through strudel dough, which is quite an amusing idea, though.. I did enjoy this post.